Friday Speak Out!: Seeds of Truth in Fiction

Friday, March 29, 2024
By Mary Fleming

People often ask me: “Where do you get your ideas?”

They generally express this question with wonderment, as if I must have lived a wildly adventurous life. Or as if they see me sitting down at my desk, picking up a pen or opening the computer and Bang, the plot and the characters strike like a bolt from heaven and out flows a novel.

If only.

I collect the seeds for my fiction from real life. Either things my friends have experienced or a story I read in the news. When the story sticks with me, it starts to take root in my brain, and I know I have a possible short story or novel. Then plot and characters begin to grow and take shape. By the end the seed has developed into something quite different from the origin story.

My first novel, Someone Else, for example, is the story of an American woman with the perfect Paris life: a literary editor married to a French architect with four children. But as a university student, she’d run away from a crime of arson and left the perpetrator to take all the blame. When he comes to Paris, the perfect life unravels. The idea came from Katherine Ann Power, a 60’s radical who escaped arrest as an accomplice to a fatal bank robbery in 1970. She changed her name and built a perfect Oregon life as a wife, mother and cook. After 23 years of secrecy and lies, she turned herself in.

In my story there were no deaths, no going underground, no new identities and the truth came out against the character’s will. It was the idea of being haunted by past deeds and secrets that appealed to me.

The seed for my second novel, The Art of Regret, came from a friend’s childhood trauma. Her father committed suicide when she was 15. Afterwards, it was never discussed with her mother or sister. That unspoken but defining experience had made her an edgy young person, like my main character (a man). Redemption is achieved by both the real and the fictional person through love, connecting intensely with another human being.

The idea for Civilisation Française came from reading about an empty old mansion on the place des Vosges that was being squatted in 2009-10. I moved the story to the early 1980s, when I first arrived in Paris, and plopped my two main characters plus a housekeeper into a few of its rooms and took the story from there.

In all three cases, the real-life stories took root in my creative mind because they illustrated themes that are important to me: how the past overshadows the present, what is the definition of home, the difficulties of connecting with other people.

If you want to know what to write about, you don’t need to look very far. Just listen to friends or open a newspaper.

* * *

Mary Fleming’s new novel, CIVILISATION FRANÇAISE , comes out from Heliotrope Books in July. She was born in Chicago and has lived in France for many years. After working as a journalist and consultant, she turned to fiction and has written two other novels, Someone Else and The Art of Regret. Her bi-weekly photo-essay, A Paris-Perche Diary, tracks city and country (Normandy) life. Find her online at website: Mary Fleming Author, blog: A Paris Perche Diary, and Instagram: @flemingm6

Would you like to participate in Friday "Speak Out!"? Email your short posts (under 500 words) about women and writing to: marcia[at]wow-womenonwriting[dot]com for consideration. We look forward to hearing from you!


Angela Mackintosh said...

I love hearing about the inspiration behind fiction, and this was a treat! I'm interested in the premise of your second novel since I often write about suicide too. I'm a CNF writer who has recently ventured into fiction, so all my fiction is based on my real life experiences so far. Congratulations on your forthcoming novel!

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